Twelfth Night (1989): Birmingham Repertory Theatre

PrTwelfth Night (

Live Performance

PRINCIPAL CAST: Thomas Baptiste (Orsino); Joseph Charles (Malvolio); Jim Findley (Feste); Judith Jacob (Maria); Matthew Kelly (Sir Andrew Aguecheek); Joseph Marcell (Sir Toby Belch); Jan Ravens (Viola); Ellen Thomas (Olivia).

This production ran from 3 - 25 November 1989.

"Pip Broughton's production of the Shakespearean classic lacks reverence. This is more Notting Hill carnival than 17th century Illyria. Ms Broughton uses mixed black and white casting to transport us to a Jamaican island, where the accents are so broad you lose the play in a fog of patois, while the sense is lost in a welter of sight-gags. The strange thing is that at one point an actor drops the patois, making the play suddenly intelligible. So why not play it like that throughout. There have been eccentric locations before and there will be again, and setting a mixed cast in the 17th century with its manners and customs as the play's natural home could still have provided the actors with a chance to speak the poetry which is at the heart of the play. Yes, there is a swimming pool on this tropical island. But Ms Broughton fouls the water by having Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek urinate in it. And must Sir Andrew openly grope Maria in an obscene way? Oh, come on Ms Broughton, there's a lot of kids in the house. The play survives all this - just about, and there are some lively performances. I felt sorry for these good actors." [But not enough to name any of the actors he felt were good.]  ~ Richard Edmonds, "Lost in a fog of patois", Birmingham Evening Mail, 8 November 1989

"This light and dark comedy is one of those classical Shakespeare plays that can practically survive any eccentricity of production style. Recently, we saw Anthony [sic] Sher's marvellous Twelfth Night [directed by Bill Alexander; Sher played Malvolio] set on a Greek island. But the Rep production, directed by Pip Broughton, takes an interesting viewpoint by casting from among black and white players. As proof of its strength, the play survives this novelty - although there must be reservations. Ms. Broughton transports Illyria to the Caribbean, a modern-day setting which gives a pleasant panto air early in the season. There have been other unlikely Illyrias, but this notion does seem to make an over-dogmatic point about mixed casting. Why on earth it could not have been directed in traditional renaissance style is a mystery. If this had been the cast, the play's humour, its notions and above all its poetry (yes, its poetry) would have over-ridden differences of colour or vocal timbre. As it is, Ms Broughton hits the text hard with sight-gags, plus an on-stage swimming pool. It seems to me what laughter there was was at the gags and not with the text. There are intermingled here awkward passages of unnecessary grossness....Still, there we are, the play is lost along with its humour amongst daunting Jamaican accents which frequently make the lines unintelligible while Matthew Kelly is required to play Aguecheek as a German touris and Joseph Charles as Malvolio is required to mince along before his come-uppance. I should think that most people will hurry back to the text to check whether they were listening indeed to the Twelfth Night Shakespeare wrote."  ~ Richard Edmonds, "Mixed-cast mistmatch of innovation and dubious taste", Birmingham Post, 8 November 1989

"Even before it had officially opened, Pip Broughton's production was causing a controversy which challenges Birmingham's recent claims to be an artistically adventurous, lively city. A local headmaster complained about the production's obscenity - and the pornography of the writing - offending his pupils, presumably because Sir Toby Belch pees in the pool and Maria, on the 'Come to the buttery bar' line, puts Agucheek's hand on her crotch rather than her breast. Birmingham kids obviously like their Shakespeare to be dull and boring. I can't see why they are objecting - it is, in fact, a fairly tedious Twelfth Night. It's not the bawdy, vulgar, coarse approach that I object to - Twelfth Night is like that - but the apparent inability of the company to speak the verse with any conviction or sensitivity to the words. That, in a sane world, is why school parties walk out. Twelfth Night is an early example of pantomime: Pip Broughton is quite entitled to set it on a Caribbean island, complete with tropical storms. Illyria need not be the Croatian coast of Yugoslavia. It's an intriguing, pregnant concept which is destroyed in the plodding execution. There's a largely West Indian cast - with a lovely patrician Duke Orsino from Thomas Baptiste, a glouriously rough Sir Toby from Joseph Marcell, a lively Maria from Judith Jacob, an extrovert Feste from Jim Findlay, and an intriguing Fabian from Chris Tajah. But the whites, apart from Craig Stevenson's Sebastian, weren't very interesting. Jan Ravens was too earnest and looked lost as Viola and Matthew Kelly's Aguecheek, all flailing limbs, affected a German accent for no reason. Joseph Charles's Malvolio is best forgotten - he even got the intonation wrong on 'If this should be thee' when he finds the letter from Olivia. It was a production that tried, quite reasonably, to fill the stage with Caribbean vitality - like a calypso version of 'O mistress mine' - and simply failed to pull it off. It was dull and limp and the first night audience didn't laugh a lot. That would be a real reason for walking out."  ~ Robin Thornber, "Twelfth Night", The Guardian, 9 November 1989

"Pip Broughton's Twelfth Night includes a joke that is utterly puerile - and you can spell that with a capital 'pee'. But what a pity her imaginative new production at Birmingham Rep will now be remembered as the show which had actors urinating on stage (simulated, of course)....Ms Broughton should have contented herself with challenging the fuddy-duddies and the die-hards of the doublet-and-hose brigade with her other gimmick. Because she has shifted Illyria to the Caribbean and peopled it with a predominantly black cast. It's not just the songs which have a calypso lilt and it takes a while to tune in to the different rhythms in the verse-speaking. But, for the most part, Shakespeare survives this vibrant treatment without serious injury. Jacqueline Gunn's design provides stairs to run up and down, windows to be opened, walls to be climbed and giant palm leaves for hiding behind. There is also a tropical lake from which the ship-wrecked Viola makes an impressively submarine entrance. In fact, Jan Ravens is impressive all night. So is the powerful Orsino of Thomas Baptiste. For reasons of milking an extra laugh or two, Matthew Kelly plays Sir Andrew Aguecheek as a German tourist and all-round twit. But he is not as funny as Jim Findley, whose Feste is the joy of the evening. Joseph Charles offers a Malvolio of affectation rather than pomposity and I cannot say I cared for it. But Joseph Marcell is a robust, dyspeptic Sir Toby, aided and abetted by Judith Jacobs's mischievous Maria. It's not that the West Indian setting provides shattering new insights, nor is this the best Twelfth Night I have seen by a long way, but it is a lot of fun."  ~ William Bolton, "There was no need for this silly offence", Sunday Mercury, 12 November 1989

"There are man good reasons why Twelfth Night should be washed up on a Caribbean island, not least the air of evergreen carnival that pervades much of the play. But this idea packs no punch in Pip Broughton's production, which makes a flat debut for the Birmingham Rep Company. This is a pity, for it is staged with the visual flair that one has come to expect from Pip Broughton. Jacqueline Gunn's poster-paint design sets the play on a shore fringed with banana palms. Water laps against the sand where Orsino dines, and a staircase bridges the sea before snaking up to Olivia's white-washed villa....The sun, too, has gone to the heads of all the characters, rendering them tiresomely bright, shallow and one-dimensional. Without an edge of darkness, Feste is just a neat juggler and clown in motley batik; Malvolio is no more threatening than a dormitory tell-tale (Joseph Charles's inept and frail performance makes nonsense of any need of reform or punishment); Thomas Baptiste's ancient, walrus-like Orsino, a man whose emotions are like a traffic light stuck on amber, is far from the volatile, ever-changing opal Feste describes...Dismal acting is exacerbated by appalling diction which makes inaudible great chunks of the play. An audience of teenagers was only ever fitfully engaged, and never by the grace or wit of the language, nor by the play's subtlety, which must have eluded them. The fault was not theirs."  ~ Georgina Brown, "Summer madness", The Independent, 15 November 1989

"As The Playboy of the Western World and Three Sisters have been successfully hijacked to the Caribbean, there is no reason why Twelfth Night should not follow suit: but it has not happened in Pip Broughton's production. I was no enthusiast for the National Theatre's all-black Measure for Measure, but at least it marked a serious attempt to translate Shakespeare's Vienna into West Indian terms. No such thought has gone into Birminham's Illyria, which suggests - if anything - the adventure playground in a luxury hotel rather than a real place. Down-stage left we find Orsino's resident band, sharing a palm tree with a group of decorative tots: Jacqueline Gunn's serpentine stairway snakes upward to the azure sky-cloth encircling a centre stage pool. The demands of the text immediately take second place to giving this dreadful scenic machine something to do. So we have characters treating the stairway as a big-dipper, swinging out of windows, climbing down the walls. Then, alas, there is the pool....It is a good company, including old hands like Thomas Baptiste (Orsino) and some impressive Shakespearian debutants: notably Judith Jacob's electrically mischievous Maria, and rather less notably, Jan Ravens's Viola. But, if the show proves anything, it is that actors are no match for an incoherent production. Here we have a dignified black lace Olivia (Ellen Thomas) with a Malvolio (Joseph Charles) who shouts at her. Following Cesario, he bides his time and then filches the discarded ring. Whatever Malvolio may be, he is not a thief: but anything for a laugh. Joseph Marcell, who really can handle the verse, is oblighed to present Sir Toby as a loutish ruffian in tattered beachcomber pants. Nonsensical episodes abound. For the party scene, at dead of night, the tots are still there to give Feste (Jim Findley) a backing chorus for his 'Mistress mine' calypso....Last night's house was full of school-children: Birmingham was not doing them a good turn."  ~ Irving Wardle, "The Bard takes a dive", The Times, 15 November 1989

"The cast who played out this story were excellent, if anything adding to the play by their clever use of the Caribbean setting. Drawling Jamaican accents were intially hard to understand, but later showed themselves brilliantly suited to the ironies and innuendo of Shakespearean dialogue. Indeed, the emphasis on the play's bawdy nature, whether through expansive gestures or the wryest of smiles, was very popular with the audience....The play opened up whole new facets of Shakespeare that I had previously only seen feigned by pretentious over-eager audiences. Drenched in a cascade of rum and mellowing Caribbean tones, Shakespeare became both funny and sad, tender and ribald; it became universal."  ~ Myles Quin, "Twelfth Night, Birmingham Sun, 14 December 1989

"A Shakespeare play starring EastEnders' actress Judith Jacob has been branded pornographic and obscene by a headmaster. Judith - black social worker Carmel Roberts in the TV soap - plays serving wench Maria in a theatre performance of Twelfth Night. In one explicit scene another character, Malvolio, gropes her for 30 seconds while he makes a speech. In another, actors used concealed bags of water to simulate urinating. The play, which also stars former Game For A Laugh presenter Matthew Kelly as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, opened last night in Birmingham. Outraged Gerard Smith, head of St Peter's school in Northampton, took 40 pupils aged between eight and 17 to a preview. He said, 'I think the production has gone totally over the top. They have cheapended the whole affair, making it obscene in parts and pornographic in others.' John Adams, theatre artistic director, denied there was anything obscene or pornographic. Matthew Kelly said: 'The production is exceedingly bawdy but in no way pornographic.'"  ~ Bill Akass, "Bawdy Bard 'porn' play shocks head", Daily Mirror, 8 November 1989